Thursday, October 6, 2016

Trump's Truthiness And Post-Factual Politics In A "Demon-Haunted World"

In 2005 humorist Stephen Colbert introduced the term "Truthiness" on his political satire show, "The Colbert Report."  Although the origin of the word goes back to the early 1800's to refer to truthfulness, Colbert used it to parody current political discourse, referring to the "truth" that a person making an argument or assertion claims to know intuitively "from the gut" or because it "feels right" without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.  Colbert's explanation of the word that he gave a decade ago in a 2006 interview seems even more applicable to today's political scene, and in particular to current Presidential campaign rhetoric:
Truthiness is tearing apart our country, and I don't mean the argument over who came up with the word ...
It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that's not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It's certainty. People love ... [insert D.T instead of then President G.W. Bush] because he's certain of his choices as a leader, even if the facts that back him up don't seem to exist. It's the fact that he's certain that is very appealing to a certain section of the country [emphasis added].  I really feel a dichotomy in the American populace. What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true?...
Truthiness is 'What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.' It's not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There's not only an emotional quality, but there's a selfish quality. (A.V. Club Interview, 2006)
Conservative columnist George Will uses the related but not nearly as humorous term "Post-factual Politics" to describe what he sees as an age in which political decisions and strategies often ignore demonstrable facts and instead follow a worldview largely uninformed by reality (see, for example, Will's 9/29/16 analysis of Trump's position on Ukraine ("Trump's Shallowness Runs Deep") and his 9/14/16 discussion of Putin's Orwellian rewriting of history in the service of "making Russia great again."

George Will's observations aren't as entertaining as Colbert's, but their implications are equally sobering and alarming. It is very disturbing to think we are heading for a society in which facts don't matter and truthiness is more important than truth.

A possible antidote to this trend is for citizens to make use of the several politically neutral fact-checking services that are available online, such as Politifact.Com, Factcheck.Org, or the Washington Post's "Fact Checker" column. All three allow for degrees of factual distortion, from leaving out important contextual details, to over- or under-stating numerical data, to making totally unsubstantiated factual claims. The potential benefit of consulting such sources is that they allow current issues to be assessed more rationally, and though interpretations may differ as to what the facts imply for political action, at least these disagreements can begin with a common, realistic referent.

Unfortunately, the beneficial impact of fact-checking may be limited in the climate of extreme divisiveness we are now experiencing.  As Anne Applebaum of the Washington Post has noted,
...there are limits to what fact-checking can achieve. Those who have tried to measure the impact of fact-checking have found that there are many kinds of audiences, and that fact-checking affects each of them differently. All people are more likely to believe in “facts” that confirm their preexisting opinions and to dismiss those that don’t. But those with unusually strong opinions — those who are more partisan — are less likely to change their views, more likely to claim that fact-checkers themselves are “biased,” and even more likely to spread their views aggressively to their friends. This has always been the case, but social media now multiplies the phenomenon: In a world where people get most of their information from friends, fact-checking doesn’t reach those who need it most [emphasis added]. (Applebaum, 5/19/16)
For those at the political extremes (such as D.T.) truthiness wins because the truth reported by fact-checkers must be a lie if it contradicts what the extremists already believe and feel in their gut is correct: "What I say is right, and nothing anyone else says could possibly be true." The manifestations and consequences of truthiness and post-factual politics are far-reaching, dire and ironic -- at a time in history when astonishing discoveries are being made in medicine, biology, physics, space exploration, and other fields the world is simultaneously gripped by war, global political and economic instability, internal political discord, and ethnic conflict fueled by intransigent religious beliefs and extreme ideological intolerance.

The tendency to reject evidence-based reasoning extends beyond politics and includes a growing resistance to scientific approaches to knowledge and decision-making, as illustrated by controversies over climate change, evolution, and stem-cell research.  In many areas of life that could be usefully informed by the methods and findings of science, people instead seem willing to accept unfounded explanations of events and solutions to problems that rest on intuition, superstition, and pseudoscience. Add to this the growing tendency to deny scientific evidence because it doesn't fit our politicized beliefs.

Carl Sagan, the astronomer and tireless advocate of science education explored the extent and causes of this phenomenon in his 1996 book, The Demon-Haunted World.  He suggests that one reason for the rejection of scientific evidence -- and by extension the reliance on truthiness -- is a misperception of the self-correcting and probabilistic nature of science, two features which distinguish science from ideological approaches to determining truth.  By insisting on repeatable, objective evidence to support empirical claims, science builds on past knowledge by correcting and extending conclusions in light of the most recent reliable evidence.  Unfortunately this can lead to the false inference that truth is as malleable as opinion and therefore scientific evidence has no greater claim to validity than one's gut feeling.  Furthermore, since science explicitly acknowledges that any scientific conclusion is possibly false, some people believe this means any two explanatory claims (such as Darwinian Evolutionary Theory versus Creationism) have equal standing.  However, they have failed to appreciate that science carefully assesses the degree of certainty in any claim, and these can vary widely based on the amount and consistency of available evidence -- some explanations are far more credible than others.

A second possible reason for rejecting scientific evidence focuses more on the emotional basis of the phenomenon, and as a social psychologist I find it very compelling.  Sagan notes that superstitious and non-scientific reasoning are often appealing because they promise to remove the distress of uncertainty of everyday life in a world full of perceived threats. But this comes at a high price:
"Avoidable human misery is more often caused not so much by stupidity as by ignorance, particularly ignorance about ourselves.  I worry that ... pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive ....Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to our national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up all around us -- then habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls" [emphasis added].
The desire for certainty -- even if the certainty is an illusion created from the truthiness of post-factual political rhetoric -- is a powerful psychological motivation in times of social upheaval such as we are now experiencing.  But in contrast to the measured certainty of science, the illusory kind is not amenable to moderation by consideration of factual evidence.

Carl Sagan died in 1996, the same year he finished writing The Demon-Haunted World .  I am certain he would be thrilled by the scientific advances of the past 20 years.  But I think he might also be very disappointed and saddened to find so many demons still haunting us.....

Sources & Resources:

"Truthiness,"  Wikipedia (Includes a transcript of the interview with Stephen Colbert)
George Will: "Trump's Shallowness Runs Deep," Washington Post 9/29/16,  "Putin Goes Full Orwell," Washington Post 9/14/16,
Anne Applebaum:  "Fact-Checking in a 'Post-Fact World'" Washington Post, 5/19/16
Carl Sagan:  The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1996).  Ballantine Books.